Category Archives: Politics

THE IRONY!! IT BURNS!!!!!!

Pardon this brief sojourn outside Vermont’s borders, but I just can’t resist.

As my readers are painfully aware, I’m a big fan of irony. But this… this is Irony Overload. This is irony so bright you can’t stare directly at it for fear of going blind. This is nuke-level irony that can destroy an entire city. This is Irony That Wiped Out The Dinosaurs.

This is… sick.

Jeb Bush is utterly clueless or completely shameless, one or the other. Because his own family is a walking, talking, multigenerational advertisement for American social immobility. Wikipedia:

Along with many members who have been successful bankers and businessmen, across generations the family includes two U.S. Senators, one Supreme Court Justice, two Governors and two Presidents (one of the two presidents also served as Vice President).  …Peter Schweizer, author of a biography of the family, has described the Bushes as “the most successful political dynasty in American history”.

So all we have to do is make Jeb the third Bush president in less than twenty years, and he’ll get right to work on that social mobility thing.

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Let’s go to the 990

Okay, so I spent part of Monday (maybe five, ten minutes all told) in a slow-motion Tweetchat with the fine folks at the Ethan Allen Institute. At one point, whoever Tweets on behalf of EAI accused me of lying about its connection with the Koch empire. And I pointed out that it wasn’t a lie, just a mistake.

Then came the following exchange:

Dunno what they mean by “solution” there, but the whole Tweet is kind of inartful. Anyway, @EAIVT asked if I had consulted its IRS Form 990, the annual filing required of nonprofit organizations.

Well, I hadn’t checked the 990 because I knew it was irrelevant to my assertion. Nonprofits aren’t required to disclose revenue sources, so nothing in EAI’s form would prove or disprove any Koch connection.

But hey, I’m open to suggestion, so I found EAI’s latest 990 — for tax year 2013 — as posted by the journalistic nonprofit ProPublica. (Where you can find the last several years’ worth, in fact.)

And as I thought, there’s no information about where the money comes from. But there are some interesting numbers to be found, and here’s a sampling.

In 2013, EAI took in $140,690 in “contributions, gifts, grants and similar amounts received,” plus another $60,000 in membership dues. Add in a bit here and there, and EAI revenue was $201,018.

Not bad, not bad. There’s no further information about the sources of that $201, 018, nothing to prove or disprove any financial dependence on the Kochs or the State Policy Network or other out-of-state corporate interests.

Unfortunately, EAI was a deficit spender in 2013. It racked up expenses of $224,290. Fortunately, it began the year with a positive balance of $43,021, so it ended the year in the black.

Yay!

On to Part III, “Statement of Program Service Accomplishments,” a.k.a. EAI’s nonprofit fig leaf. The IRS requires a list of the organization’s three primary programs. Here’s the EAI list:

— $72,200 for “Two daily radio programs on WDEV Radio Vermont.” This includes John McClaughry’s Daily Diatribe (I think that’s what they call it); and the hour-long “Common Sense Radio,” which causes massive tuneout at the end of the Mark Johnson Show every weekday at 11.

Well, now we know why the folks at WDEV put up with that drivel. They are well paid to put up with that drivel. And they get a better deal than we do; thanks to EAI’s tax-exempt status, we are all paying, indirectly, for the glories of “Common Sense Radio.”

— $44,205 for something called the Energy Education Project, which “promotes intelligent energy choices in Vermont through a daily blog, a website and educational events.” Gee, I’d never heard of this endeavor before. So I searched for “Energy Education Project Vermont,” and there it was.

However, it hasn’t been updated in a very long time. The top item on its homepage is entitled “Entergy Announces That Vermont Yankee Will Close in October 2014.” Checking the Google, I see that Entergy made that announcement in August of 2013.

Pretty sad, for EAI’s number-two Service Accomplishment.

— $47,000 for a variety of programs, not a single entry. These include the montlhly Ethan Allen Letter; a series of opinion pieces offered gratis to Vermont media outlets; “public meetings and educational seminars”; and a transparency website jointly maintained with the Public Assets Institute. Now there’s an odd couple.

On to Part IV, a list of officers and key employees. Oh boy, salary disclosure!

EAI President Rob Roper pulled down $50,000 last year, slightly under Vermont’s median income. Hey look, he’s middle class!

Vice President John McClaughry made $24,000 and his wife Anne made $18,000 as Secretary/Treasurer, plus another $5500 combined for “Health benefits, contributions to employee benefit plans, and deferred compensation.”

Bill Sayre, member of the Board of Directors, made $9600, presumably for hosting Common Sense Radio. None of the other directors (Wendy Wilton, Jack McMullen, Catherine Clark, John Cueman, Milt Eaton) was paid.

Finally, the caboose on EAI’s very short gravy train is occupied by Shayne Spence, who was paid $6000 to serve as “Outreach Coordinator.” I don’t know whether this includes the compensation he received as a Koch Summer Fellow in 2013, but that’s a thing that exists.

I’ll skip over several boring pages, which brings me to Schedule A, Part III, which lists total “Public Support” for the five preceding years. During that time, EAI took in a total of $784,910. The totals for 2009 through 2013 go:

$151,775; $155,225; $171,565; $105,345; and $201,000.

Don’t know what happened in 2012, but there you are. In addition to the “public support,” EAI has made a few hundred bucks every year from “interest, dividends” and other non-donor sources.

Well, that was fun. It did nothing to illuminate the sources of EAI’s money or to settle the question of whether it has financial ties to the State Policy Network and other Koch- and Koch-like operations, or whether its ties are purely ideological.

Too bad, as I wrote earlier: we really need more transparency in the nonprofit world. If EAI could show that it really is a home-grown organization that gets the bulk of its financing from Vermonters, that would lend it some credibility.

The hidden world of nonprofit advocacy

Okay, so today I Tweeted this:

It’s something I’ve been thinking for a long time. There are more and more “nonprofit organizations” whose official mission is “educational” or some such, but whose actual purpose is political advocacy, including activity that ought to be classified as lobbying but it’s not.

This is one reason I’m less exercised than some about the proposed cap on itemized deductions: a lot of “charitable contributions” are being spent politically. Many wealthy people set up their own nonprofit foundations for the purpose of spreading their political beliefs. The Koch Empire is the prime example of this, but there are lots of others. In Vermont, their number includes the Vermont Workers’ Center, VPIRG, Campaign for Vermont, Energize Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, the Ethan Allen Institute, and the late unlamented Vermonters First.

That’s a heavy-hitting list of groups trying to influence our politics, and they range from far left to far right. Nobody’s got a patent on this. Although I will say that the quantity of money on the right is much greater than on the lieft. Although although I will say that Vermont is an exception to this rule; our nonprofits lean leftward.

Some of these groups do report direct lobbying activities, but because they are nonprofits, they are not legally obligated to report the source of their revenue. Some voluntarily report to some extent, but as far as I know, none of them provide full donor disclosure. Which would include name, town and state of residence, and amount of donation. (If any group does so, please let me know and I will amend this post.)

I say “Ive been thinking about this for a long time,” so what made me write about it today? Actually, the inspiration was a mistake I made on Twitter, in replying to a Tweet from the corporate-funded folks at “Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax.”

Which brought a quick response from, well, a ready chorus of right-wingers, but let’s stick with the Ethan Allen Institute, Tweeting as @EAIVT:

They’re right. At least they’re partly right. “SPN” is the State Policy Network, which is part of the Koch nonprofit empire. I didn’t lie, though; I mistakenly believed that EAI is Koch-funded. I picked this up from the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Sourcewatch,” which describes SPN thusly:

The State Policy Network (SPN) has franchised, funded, and fostered a growing number of “mini Heritage Foundations” at the state level since the early 1990s.[1] SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state “think tank” members.

Sourcewatch lists the Ethan Allen Institute as the SPN’s Vermont affiliate. There’s where I made my leap of faith. I’ll take EAI’s word for it that they don’t get money from SPN or the Kochs; too bad for them, since a lot of their fellow SPNers are ridin’ that gravy train.

Still, for EAI to pay for the privilege of SPN affilliation… it’s not correct to call them “Koch-funded,” but they’re definitely “Koch-friendly.”

I will freely admit that I sometimes shoot from the hip, as I did in this case. I try to own up when I’m wrong; this isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I could have avoided my mistake if we had better disclosure laws; I could have gone to the source instead of poking around for indirect scraps of information.

But the real point isn’t a matter of my convenience. It’s openness and transparency in our politics.

Organized political parties (and the Democrats, haha) will tell you that campaign finance laws are stacked against them. It’s better in a number of ways for donors to go through their own organizations than through parties: there are effectlvely no limits and few disclosure requirements, and they retain control over how their money is spent. That’s why the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and all those people don’t give much money to the Republican Party; they funnel their wealth through their own organizations. And when those groups are nonprofits, We, the Taxpayers, are underwriting their political activities. Nice work if you can get it.

The point is, in this modern world of political nonprofits, we need better disclosure rules. We need to know who’s spending money for what political purpose, whether they’re going through the Ethan Allen Institute or the Vermont Workers’ Center.

Shap addresses the faithful

If the Democratic State Committee meeting was short of drama on the wind energy front, there were still a couple of interesting developments to report. I’lll write about one of them — some news about the future of H.76, the bill to ban teacher strikes — in my next post.

My subject this time: House Speaker Shap Smith addressed the gathering. That’s more noteworthy than it seems; the top elected Democrats rarely attend the DSC meetings, especially when it’s not a campaign year.

But Smith had a prominent place on the agenda, and he delivered an effective speech with two purposes: to buck up the party faithful, and to present himself as a person and leader.

Which immediately raises the question, yet again: is he running for Governor?

My own view is that he is not — yet. But he is ticking off the items on the Running For Governor To-Do List, and this was one more check box filled in.

In style, he was reasoned, earnest, articulate, and straightforward. Well, he plausibly appeared so, which is the most you can say for sure about a politician. In substance, he pointed out areas of significant accomplishment for the Democratic regime — things “not reported very much in the media.” They include:

— An improving economy with a low unemployment rate and (finally) some growth in wages.

— On health care, Vermont now has the second-lowest uninsured rate in the country at 3.7%. It was 7% before the Obama/Shumlin reforms took effect. The national rate is still 12%. “We are close to universal coverage in Vermont,” he said. “That’s a good story, and it gets lost in the problems with Vermont Health Connect.”

— Vermont has one of the healthiest populations in the country.

— Our public education system is in the top three nationally. “In the conversation around property tax, we lose sight of the fact that that money is spent for the next generation, and spent successfully.”

— The state has kept its promise to fully fund public-sector pensions and, in fact, “we’re making up for the sins of the past.”

— The Legislature has “kept our commitments” on a range of other issues, in spite of intense budget pressures.

The Speaker then moved to personal narrative, recalling that his parents moved to Vermont in 1970 as part of the “Back to the land” movement, in search of “the promise of Vermont.” As an adult he himself, after working in New York City, moved back to Vermont in search of that same promise. He concluded by saying “I’m proud to be in the House; I’m proud to be a Democrat; most of all, I’m proud to be a Vermonter.”

If he’s testing out a future stump speech, he’s definitely on the right track.

He took some unfriendly questions, especially on the administration’s fractious relationship (in both tone and substance) with labor. The two areas of concern were Gov. Shumlin’s desire to reopen the state workers’ contract, and legislation aimed at barring teacher strikes, usually accompanied by blasts of anti-teacher and anti-union language. One questioner complained about the “barrage of abuse from my leaders” toward teachers and local school boards.

On the former, Smith stood his ground, saying that given the budget situation, “we have to make some adjustments. We’re having ongoing conversations with the VSEA, trying to work things out, but we aren’t going to be able to make everybody happy.”

On the latter, he offered some news on H.76, the bill that would ban teacher strikes and bar the imposition of contract terms by school boards. The bill is seen by many as being much harder on the unions than on the boards. Smith said that “it will not pass the House in its present form.”

All in all, an impressive performance. I haven’t changed my view; it’s too soon to say whether he will run for Governor in 2016 or ever. Heck, we’re less than a year removed from the guy actively considering an exit from the Legislature. But is he positioning himself as a credible candidate for the corner office?

He sure is.

Dr. Dean dips toe into Beltway cesspool

Oh boy, oh boy, it’s a Tweetfight!

In this corner, former Vermont Governor and DNC chair Howard Dean!

In that corner, Ron Fournier, senior political columnist for the National Journal and longtime bete noire of liberal politicos. At the NJ and previously for the Associated Press, Fournier’s coverage has been notably harsh on Democrats and relatively soft on Republicans.

So, of course, a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy puts her firmly in the crosshairs. Fournier’s latest hack job: a gossipy, fact-free piece floating rumors that Hillary’s email practices may have been related to Clinton Foundation fundraising. Specifically, that she might have been using her pull as Secretary of State to induce fat contributions from foreign governments and potentates.

Fournier comes right out and says there is “no evidence of wrongdoing,” but that doesn’t stop him from filling his column with the kinds of leading questions you usually expect from Fox News or Darrell Issa:

Is the foundation clean? Is it corrupt? Or is the truth in the muddy middle, where we so often find the Clintons? … Without those emails, we may never be able to follow the money. Could that be why she hasn’t coughed up the server?

He even makes it clear he has a personal beef with the Clintons and what he calls “their entitlement, outsized victimization, and an aggravating belief in the ends justifying the means.”

Hmm, yeah, that sounds like a journalist to me.

Fournier, being a multi-platform content provider, dutifully Tweeted about his “scoop.”

This is where the good Dr. Dean stepped into Fournier’s cesspool.

Fournier’s self-satisfied response:

Now there’s Washington schmoozing at its grossest: “I’m right, you’re wrong, but hey, let’s do lunch! Have your people call my people.” Dean tries to pin him down:

Fournier, being a veteran of the Beltway game, is having none of it.

Good God, what a slimeball. If Fournier’s column is notable for anything, it’s for the complete lack of facts. It’s nothing but rumor and characters assassination. And he has the gall to top it off with “Be well.” I’m feeling the need for a shower. Dean’s redirect:

To which Fournier can offer nothing but a hasty exit:

“Gotta run,” indeed. Can’t stay and let himself be pinned down, can he? Dean closes with a dollop of sarcasm.

The two protagonists return to their respective corners.

Props to Dean for a noble effort. But Fournier has been a slime merchant for far too long to waste much time on a mere former governor, Presidential front-runner and major-party chair. Ron Fournier has bigger fish to fry, and a whole lot of grease to fry ’em in.

A self-selected “champion”?

Now that we’ve caught up with Campaign for Vermont’s effort to co-opt our town clerks, let’s check in with CFV founder and funder Bruce Lisman.

Well, Bruce is doing pretty much what he’s been doing — just on his own platform, the humbly named “brucelismanvt.com.” Same faux-centrist pro-business rhetoric, same slightly constipated looking smile on his face.

Bruce is blogging now, but you can’t just click over and read it; you have to “subscribe.” I’d rather die.

It’s not a paid subscription; all you have to do is provide Lisman with your contact information. Yep, he’s building a mailing list.

Running for Governor? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bruce Lisman will never be Governor of Vermont. He’s not terribly well known, in spite of his travels around the state; he’s a lousy campaigner and public speaker; and most importantly of all, Phil Scott stands squarely in his path. Scott is a much better advocate of pretty much the same policy ideas. He’s far better known, he’s a more effective speaker and a proven fundraiser, and he has a major party structure behind him.

Lisman is also Tweeting, occasionally. His latest 120-character opus:

Oh, so we need a “champion,” do we? Got someone in mind, Bruce?

Advocacy Group Seeks Public-Sector Proxies

Campaign for Vermont, the Bruce Lisman-funded public policy organization, recently sent out an interesting email blast.

The missive, dated February 25, was sent to all of Vermont’s town clerks; it asked the clerks to use their public standing on behalf of CFV:

As a staple within your community, you have the unique vantage point to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Additionally, because of your role in local government, you have the chance to experience and therefore critique many policies. To this end, Campaign for Vermont (CFV) would like to share the attached economic position paper and our newly released economic indicators report.

Ah, the generosity of these folks, freely sharing the fruits of their labor. And what do they want the clerks to do in return?

…we are excited to have you read our ideas, use your community connections to evaluate the effectiveness and legitimacy of our proposals, as well as provide feedback to Campaign for Vermont. We encourage you to share this document with business leaders in your community.

Oh. Hm. So CFV wants our publicly-elected, publicly-paid clerks to become unpaid shills for its flackery.

I doubt that CFV will get much out of this; most clerks, I imagine, simply trashed the message. As they should; this smells a bit funny to me, asking an officeholder who is supposed to be an objective arbiter of elections to become an advocate. Even if the request comes from a “nonpartisan” group.

I asked Secretary of State Jim Condos for his reaction. “It’s not illegal but it may put a clerk in a difficult position,” he wrote in an email. “It’s not something we would recommend that the clerk do, in the interest of maintaining an appearance of impartiality.” He further suggested that such a request “would be better for selectboard and city council members.”

For all I know, CFV did send the same request to those officials. I happened to receive the clerks’ email.

So, not illegal but unwise. And, it seems to me, just a little bit desperate. CFV is trying to establish broad visibility without Lisman and ease its dependence on the mighty Lisman wallet. Its executive director Cyrus Patten has been busily roaming the halls of the Statehouse, which is good, but it looks like he may have taken a step too far in trying to connect with the general public.